Historic St. Augustine church welcomes new leadership as 150th anniversary approaches

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The Rev. Alesia Ford-Burse stands in the sanctuary of St. Paul AME Church in St. Augustine on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022. Ford-Burse became pastor of the church in December.
The Rev. Alesia Ford-Burse stands in the sanctuary of St. Paul AME Church in St. Augustine on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022. Ford-Burse became pastor of the church in December.

The Rev. Alesia Ford-Burse spoke from the sanctuary of St. Paul AME Church on Thursday, reflecting on the historic parish that she began leading in December.

During the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to parishioners and civil rights activists who walked from the location on Central Avenue during demonstrations. The church address is now 85 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ave.

"I get chills when I think about it. 'Oh my goodness … I'm sharing the same pulpit that Martin Luther King once graced,'" said Ford-Burse, who was appointed by district church leadership. "And I'm very pleased at the fact that I can stand where such a great man stood."

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Dr. Martin Luther King speaks at a rally in the sanctuary of St. Paul AME Church in St. Augustine on June 11, 1964.
Dr. Martin Luther King speaks at a rally in the sanctuary of St. Paul AME Church in St. Augustine on June 11, 1964.

The Rev. Richard James organized construction of the congregation's first church in 1873 where the Willie Galimore Center is today, also in Lincolnville, at 399 Riberia St. The current building was built around the turn of the century.

As people met at area churches during the civil rights movement, they encouraged each other before they marched, Gayle Phillips, executive director of the Linconlville Museum and Cultural Center, said in a previous interview.

“They had regular meetings and prayer before they went out,” Phillips said.

When King first came to St. Augustine, there wasn’t a church large enough for the crowds he drew, so two rallies took place simultaneously: One at St. Paul AME Church and one at First Baptist Church nearby, historian David Nolan said in a previous interview. King went from one church to another after his speech.

The current St. Paul AME Church congregation, which has about 300 members, includes a 98-year-old woman who hosted King in her home, and a woman who has been a member for more than 70 years.

Ford-Burse, 60, lives with her husband, Winston Burse, in Clay County, but the couple plan to move to St. Johns County. She said congregants told her that she is the first woman to lead St. Paul AME Church, though The Record could not independently confirm that by press time. She is leading the congregation as it is poised to celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2023.

Ford-Burse replaces Rev. Melvin Kennerly, who replaced Pastor Ron Rawls in 2020.

With about two months at the church so far, Ford-Burse described it as a wonderful experience.

"This church has a lot of very active ministries," she said. "It's been really good and refreshing to see the level of engagement that the members have in St. Augustine. And it's been good to see the number of people we have working together in the church."

Ford-Burse grew up going to church and has a twin who is also a pastor. She said she felt led by God to go into ministry in the '90s. Her last position was senior pastor at St. James Orange Park.

She also works as a field office director in Jacksonville for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

She has several degrees, including a doctorate in applied anthropology and a master's in divinity.

While Ford-Burse said she has ideas about affordable housing that she would like to share with the community, she said her first priority is caring for the congregation.

"I think the church has been through a lot just being in a pandemic, just being in transition with pastors. And I just came here to really love them first," she said.

She said when the congregation celebrates its 150 years of history in 2023, she wants it to be a community-wide celebration.

"I'm excited about the work here," she said.

This article originally appeared on St. Augustine Record: St. Augustine church that hosted Martin Luther King welcomes new pastor

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